Archive for Citizen Kane

The View

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2021 by dcairns

This shot in ALL THE KING’S MEN (1949) is so extreme in its wide-angle distortion (enhancing the fact that John Ireland really was enormous and Mercedes McCambridge really was tiny) that I wished the whole film was like that. Serious TOUCH OF EVIL vibes, and of course MM would go on to appear in TOE.

In fact, the rest of the film isn’t that much less distorted: so much of the action is big sweaty men crammed into small hotel rooms. Director Robert Rossen and DP Burnett Guffey crowd the frame with different-sized figures. Welles has to have been the inspiration. Rossen looks at CITIZEN KANE and then Welles comes along and borrows McCambridge ten years later.

I liked the movie — Ireland and McCambridge together before THE SCARF — Broderick Crawford in the role he was born for — but I didn’t love it. Maybe because the assassination of Huey Long, a dramatic twist in real life, feels like a cop-out in a fictionized version. I don’t know of any real-life political stories with satisfying climaxes. Stories of revolution are quite satisfying, but then you have to leave out what comes after (generally, disillusion). How the hell does Costa-Gavras do it?

Actually, this week I’ve been mainly listening to political history podcasts. Leon Neyfakh created the first two series of Slow Burn over at Slate, which dealt with Watergate and the Clinton Impeachment, and now he does Fiasco, which so far has covered Bush V Gore, the Iran-Contra scandal, school desegregation (“busing” as it got termed, a very successful piece of objuscation), and the Benghazi tragedy and its fall-out. Really terrific stuff. You could compare them to Adam Curtis documentaries for the ears, but if you don’t like Curtis I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of loving these.

White Jazz

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2021 by dcairns

We came to William Dieterle’s SYNCOPATION with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, partly explained by the fact that we’d recently watched the same director’s THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (not quite as turgid as we’d feared, but mis-structured and turgid ENOUGH). This one is a history of jazz, and the unspoken question on our lips was how white it was going to be. The earlier KING OF JAZZ, magnificent two-strip abomination that it is, has precisely one mention of Africa, and then, at its climax, shows jazz being the product of America’s melting pot, with ingredients inclusing Dutch clog dancers and Scottish pipe bands, but absolutely no Black folks.

SYNCOPATION, for all the limitations of a 1942 RKO production, is much better than that! It’s totally in the mode of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER in terms of expressionist flavouring. TDADW was building on CITIZEN KANE’s innovations and so here we have a big screen-filling title appearing in total silence. And the credits are just a list of names of people who collaborated on the picture, “in front of” and “behind the camera!: communism!

And then we’re in Africa. The drums, of course, are beating. White traders arrive. They open a treasure chest. It’s full of — dramatic orchestral stab — MANACLES.

And now this is happening. It’s bold, I tell you.

The dissolve emphasises the compositional similarity: the box frame, the imprisoned people with their arms wrapped around their knees echo the shape of the manacles. The conditions in this ship are BETTER than in reality they would have been, but the shot is built to create an impression of horrible confinement.

J. Roy Hunt (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) shot it and John Sturges cut it.

The dots are joined: we see not only where the slaves are going but what they’re going to do there. This is no Roots and that aspect of the film is now over, but I give Dieterle and writers Philip “the front” Yordan, Frank Cavett and Valentine Davies serious props for their opening.

This promising start must be betrayed as soon as possible, so the film introduces New Orleans blueblood Adolphe Menjou and his daughter. But there are two major Black characters, little trumpeter Rex Tearbone and his mother (Jessica Grayson), maid to Menjou, effective mother to his daughter. The object is to show jazz — Black people’s “trouble music” — being passed on to white musicians.

It’s somewhat to the film’s credit that the black characters stay on past the first act (and that Menjou gets essentially nothing to do), but disappointing that they’re eventually written out. And Tearbone, who grows up (from a child whose name seems not to have been recorded, despite the IMDB listing about ninety cast members) into Todd Duncan (the original stage Porgy), which means he starts out younger than the other principles and winds up older but never mind, gets no romance or particular ambitions of his own, once his mother consents to allow him his jazz career. He’s something of a Magic Negro figure… but not completely.

The little rich girl is Bonita Granville and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks is Jackie Cooper. And they’re both very sweet: she can move her shoulders skillfully to suggest piano playing (a real art) and he seems actually to be able to blow the trumpet. And the movie absolutely trashes Paul Whiteman (here Ted Browning, so his name isn’t as hideously apt as the real-life model), not quite as mercilessly as BLUES IN THE NIGHT lambasts Kay Kyser, but close. Being forced to play the same notes night after night gives Cooper a JAZZ BREAKDOWN.

The movie doesn’t have any villains, is bravely trying to string its story through the history of jazz from Dixie to swing, and it only sort-of HAS a story to string. It’s able to climax with a wholly non-diegetic performance by a jazz supergroup of Gene Krupa, Joe Venuti, Jack Jenney, Harry James, Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet, “selected from the leaders of The Saturday Evening Post poll.” They’re all white, of course. I guess if you ask the readers of The Saturday Evening Post… but then someone at RKO has selected these guys, and we’re not allowed to know what criteria they used.

It is nice that one of the folks carrying on the baton of jazz is a girl, though the idea of Bonita having an actual career is rejected by Menjou and we hear no more of that. But she joins in on piano for the last-but-one number.

So… the movie is charming, the music is good, it excels unexpectedly in a few places, falls down predictably and grotesquely in others, and manages to stay engaging despite unresolved narrative and characters — the story of jazz, mistold and bowdlerised though it is, really is what holds it together, more than the thin but likeable characters. A whole different form of Hollywood movie, and it actually works.

Except at the box office, perhaps. Dieterle’s next employer was MGM and his next film was a hagiography of impeached president Andrew Johnson. Which I suppose I’ll have to watch.

SYNCOPATION stars Walter Burns; Perry White; Nancy Drew; Marshal Curley Wilcox; Joe Doakes; Mayor Cotton; Jimmy ‘Fergie’ Ferguson; Daniel Stone; Sheriff Bledsoe; Mr. Tuerck; and Charles Foster Kane III.

Tillie Two

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2021 by dcairns

TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE, continued.

Marie Dressler wrote in her memoirs that she chose then then-unknown Chaplin and Mabel Normand as her co-stars in her first feature film, a colossal porky pie! To many moviegoers, it was Dressler herself who was the unknown, though Mack Sennett was following a then-popular approach of casting “famous players in famous plays,” taking the preeminent comedienne of the New York stage and bundling her in a movie adapted from Tillie’s Nightmare, her most recent triumph. All this I glean from David Robinson’s magisterial Chaplin biography, acquired for a song on a recent trip to St Columba’s Bookshop, Stockbridge, pre-lockdown.

Robinson also notes that the feature-length comedy was three times longer than any comedy hitherto attempted on the screen, Mack Sennett was a gentleman of nerve.

As reel three begins, Tillie (Dressler) is delivered into the custody of her rich uncle (co-director Charles “Oh Mister Kane” Bennett) by a patient kop. The uncle has a palatial home with stone lions, liveried footmen, tiger skin rugs and suits of armour. Tillie, still tight, unsheathes a broadsword and playfully jabs the help, stoic in their periwigs, then dances a highland fling over the blade and its scabbard, the movie’s first bit of Scottish content, if you don’t count the drunk and disorderly rambunctiousness.

Tillie’s monocled uncle (her monuncle?) orders three footmen to subdue and eject his riotous niece: a chase and struggle ensue, but it’s not a full-on Keystone setpiece. Fairly muted rambunctiousness.

“Guilty creatures sitting at a play” — Charlie and Mabel go to a movie and their crime is brought home to them by the cinematograph. The film, according to the stand outside, is DOUBLE-CROSSED, but the title which appears superimposed, weaving about on the screen within, is A THIEF’S FATE: a Keystone release, seemingly fictional. The female star, interestingly, is Enid Markey, the original Jane in TARZAN OF THE APES, still four years in the future at this point. Which means that Chaplin “appeared with”, in the loosest sense, both the first Tarzan (little Gordon Griffith, who played the ape man as a lad and also appears as a newsboy in TPR) and the first Jane. Colour me Cheeta!

The other cast members in the film within a film include Morgan Wallace, who went on to work for Griffith and played James Fitchmueller in IT’S A GIFT (and WC Fields would appear in a remake of TPR; Minta Durfee (AKA Mrs. Roscoe Arbuckle); and Charles Murray, who had recently played Charlie’s director in THE MASQUERADER.

Chaplin’s repulsed reactions to the movie — Mabel immediately sees it as the story of their lives — put me strongly in mind of the late, great Rik Mayall. The sickly grin of acute discomfort! Seated next to Mabel and overacting furiously is the young but makeup-aged Charley Chase, barely recognizable, who I guess would have been billed as Charles Parrott if he were billed at all.

When the bad guys in the movie are arrested, Chaplin’s reactions in the audience are amazing: he’s half-inwardly protesting, very feebly, at the screen, really living it. TPR doesn’t have any good gags or situations but it does have a lot of spirited and imaginative playing.

Tillie gets a job as a waitress. Stumbling, Dressler turns to the camera and mouths “DAMN!” very clearly. No particular lip-reading skill is required. I wonder if offence was caused. One minute later she does it again. Did Keystone have a swear-box?

The movie keeps cutting to Tillie’s uncle’s mountain holiday, which seems like scenic padding. It’s unlikely to have been in the play. I presume he’s going to break a leg or something.

Sennett originally wanted an original story but nobody at Keystone could come up with a feature script idea (they’re hard to do) and with Dressler on salary at vast expense ($2,500 a week still seems a lot to me NOW) he opted to film her stage success under a different title for whatever reason.

Tillie is having the same kind of swing-door trouble Charlie always has, and would still be having as a waiter in MODERN TIMES twenty-two years later. Then Mabel and Charlie come to dine in her restaurant…

Suspense while projectionist fumbles with reels.

I like the fact that the original show’s librettist, Edgar Smith, wrote a show called Whoop-Dee-Doo. Maybe it suffers from the fact that that phrase is now only ever used, if it’s used at all, in a scathingly ironic way. But it sounds fabulously fatuous. I’d like to see it revived. I wouldn’t go and see it, but you could go and tell me what you think…

PART 4

Chaos ensues. Tillie faints, theatrically, upon seeing Charlie, and he tramples her prone form in his haste to flee the scene with Mabel. Tillie recovers and gives chase. Kops are called. Charlie & Mabel’s earlier cinematograph nightmare is being visited upon them in reality. They take shelter in — where else? — a park.

Charles Bennett, the film’s co-director, Tillie’s rich uncle, and the bloke who sings the song in CITIZEN KANE, falls off a mountain. I’ll bet you five he’s not alive…

“Oh no, I’ve accidentally fallen off a mountain!”

Two strenuous hams report/receive the news, then phone butler Edgar Kennedy who underplays his reaction about as much as you’d expect. A vigorous mime of the millionaire’s tumbling demise is performed. Kennedy isn’t bald yet so he doesn’t slap his pate in dismay, but he does just about everything else.

Tillie is going to inherit everything, which is just as well because waitressing really isn’t working out for her.

In the park, Charlie is accosted by a little newsboy — Milton Berle always claimed this was him, but it’s not, it’s young Tarzan, Gordon Griffith. I can’t imagine that Milty was this cherubic as a child. Nor could he swing through the trees on convenient lianas, I bet. Mind you, from the way Charlie smacks the little bastard, I almost wish it had been Berle. I wonder if this moment inspired noted Chaplin fan Roman Polanski’s child-slapping park scene in THE TENANT, which is otherwise a very odd moment if it’s not a homage to something. But then, that’s an odd film.

(Sidebar: Chaplin in THE GOLD RUSH is cited in REPULSION by Helen Fraser to cheer up Catherine Denueve; Walter Matthau and Cris Campion are compelled to eat a rat in PIRATES, a skit derived closely from the shoe-eating incident also in THE GOLD RUSH. I think there are more tributes than that, and Polanski’s wordless shorts certainly owe something to Chaplin too.)

Learning of Tillie’s inheritance before she does, Charlie ditches Mabel and skids up to Tillie’s place of employment — the Tramp one-footed skid has been carried over to this unrelated character because it’s a good bit of business. He barges in, out of breath — a good excuse for pantomime. Tillie isn’t in sight, so he describes her, waving his arms in a broad square shape. Basically, “I’m looking for a woman the size of a house.” Tillie is mopping up in the kitchen so Charlie gets to slip, fall, get up, slip, recover, slip again, fall again… He’s pretty amazing here. He didn’t think much of this film but if the whole Tramp thing hadn’t taken off (it already had) he’d be using this stuff on his showreel…

Charlie and Tillie are married by “the Rev. D, Simpson” who looks something like a reanimated cadaver. The pancake disguise is necessary since Frank Opperman also plays three other roles. I’m impressed by this plot turn — since it seems inconceivable they’ll still be married at the film’s end, I’m genuinely curious to see what solution Mr. Whoop-Dee-Doo is going to come up with for his plot.

Tillie learns of unc’s death-fall — good fainting action. Then she immediately gets suspicious of Charlie’s rush to wed her — the first sign of brains Tillie has shown. Not unwelcome. But Charlie persuades her he really loves her with a display of ACTING. There was loose talk about Chaplin playing Hamlet but Richard III would have been a better fit.

Mabel, however, is now on his trail…

END OF PART 4